David Shulkin, fired by Trump, warns that privatizing the Veterans Affairs Department will hurt veterans

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump aims to replace Veteran Affairs Department Secretary David Shulkin with White House physician Ronny Jackson.
  • Shulkin offered a parting shot Thursday in an op-ed for The New York Times.
  • "Privatization leading to the dismantling of the department's extensive health care system is a terrible idea," Shulkin wrote.
David Shulkin, former U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

David Shulkin, whom President Donald Trump fired as Veterans Affairs secretary, offered a parting shot in an op-ed for The New York Times — warning that privatizing the VA could hurt veterans.

"Privatization leading to the dismantling of the department's extensive health care system is a terrible idea," Shulkin wrote. "The department's understanding of service-related health problems, its groundbreaking research and its special ability to work with military veterans cannot be easily replicated in the private sector."

Trump fired Shulkin on Wednesday, making the announcement over Twitter. The president picked the White House physician, Adm. Ronny Jackson, to run the department.

Shulkin had become embroiled in scandals and conflicts in the latter part of his short tenure atop the government's second-biggest bureaucracy. In his New York Times article, and in an interview with NPR on Thursday morning, Shulkin said much of the conflict came from political appointees within the VA pressing for privatization.

"They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans," Shulkin wrote.

President Trump speaks with Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin.
Department of Veterans Affairs photo Robert Turtil

In his NPR interview, Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration to serve in Trump's Cabinet, did not disclose the reason he was given for his termination, although he said he was under great pressure from political appointees pushing to privatize the VA's services. Trump has often advocated for more private sector involvement in veterans' medical care.

Shulkin's job of overseeing the nation's biggest integrated health-care system was widely considered to be hanging by a thread, due to several issues, including an ethics probe over a trip to Europe. In February, the VA's inspector general issued a report that criticized Shulkin for having a subordinate handle personal travel plans for the secretary during what was otherwise a business trip. The report also dinged him for improperly accepting tickets to the tennis tournament at Wimbledon.

Speaking to NPR, Shulkin defended the trip as official business, saying it was "far from" the "European vacation" his critics described it as. He also told the radio interviewers that he kept quiet during the scandal because the White House told him not to respond to the allegations.

"I was not allowed to put up an official statement or to even respond to this by the White House, who told me that they didn't want me responding," Shulkin told NPR.

By all accounts, though, the outgoing VA secretary had fallen from grace in the president's eyes.

Yet Shulkin touted what he considered the success of the department under his management.

"We passed critical legislation that improved the appeals process for veterans seeking disability benefits, enacted a new G.I. Bill and helped ensure that we hire the right people to work at the department," he wrote in the Times. "We have expanded access to health care by reducing wait times, increasing productivity and working more closely with the private sector."

In a parting shot, Shulkin ended the piece by writing: "As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country."